By Thomas Puhr.
A common theme – be it literally or metaphorically – at this year’s festival was the dissolution of the family (or family-like) unit. The packaging of this theme, however, ranged from surreal body horror, to supernatural coming-of-age tales, to true-crime docudramas.”
This year’s Boston Underground Film Festival boasts an eclectic program, from microbudget experiments in the avant-garde to the latest offerings from some of the world’s leading auteurs (including Gaspar Noé’s Vortex, 2021). A common theme – be it literally or metaphorically – at this year’s festival was the dissolution of the family (or family-like) unit. The packaging of this theme, however, ranged from surreal body horror, to supernatural coming-of-age tales, to true-crime docudramas.
An apartment complex becomes a battleground for a group of supernaturally gifted children in Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents (De uskyldige, Norway). After moving into a new apartment with her parents and autistic sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) befriends Ben (Sam Ashraf), a lonely boy whose nascent psychokinesis rapidly develops into something far greater. The group of friends expands with the introduction of Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who can hear people’s thoughts and forms a psychic bond with Anna. That three unrelated characters from the same community would have magical abilities may seem a stretch – even by science fiction and horror standards – but Vogt’s broader implication is that all children are attuned to these special sensations, which remain alien to the surrounding adults.
Though less challenging than his directorial debut (2014’s Blind) and a bit overlong, Vogt’s sophomore feature is a unique, exquisitely made spin on a well-trod genre: think Scanners (1981), but with kids. Most impressive is his subtle variations on what we’ve come to expect from such films; yes, we get the requisite psychic showdown, but it occurs in a densely populated park, unnoticed by the public. Rather than falling back on explosions and flashy special effects, Vogt conveys a fight’s intensity through little details: rippling pond water, a strong gust of wind, sand quivering on the ground. It’s a beautifully executed set piece, one which underscores the writer-director’s focus on how insular a child’s life can be – how immensely formative experiences can pass right under a preoccupied parent’s eyes.
Another festival entry which incorporates supernatural metaphors to illustrate the gulf separating parents from their children – albeit with much less consistency than The Innocents – is Hanna Bergholm’s Hatching (Pahanhautoja, Finland). Facing intense pressure from her domineering mother (Sophia Heikkilä), preteen gymnast Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) finds solace in secretly nurturing a strange egg she finds in a forest. I won’t reveal what emerges from the ever-expanding egg, but you can probably make a pretty good guess yourself. Screenwriter Ilja Rautsi’s on-the-nose metaphor may have made for an excellent short, but – even at a brisk 86 minutes – Hatching’s central conceit runs a bit thin, especially after that egg cracks open. Like its protagonist, Hatching exists in an awkward middle-ground: Because it doesn’t deliver any real chills (though there’s plenty of gooey, squirm-inducing moments) and its touches of humor are too few and far between, it fails to stick the landing as either a horror or a comedy. Still, there’s much to admire (the production design for Tinja’s house, which seems covered with garish floral wallpaper, betrays a family living for Instagram likes rather than for each other), and the troubled mother-daughter relationship rings painfully true.
Like Hatching, Addison Heimann’s Hypochondriac (United States) utilizes overt metaphors with mixed results. Will (Zach Villa) is a young artist ten years estranged from his unstable mother, who tried to strangle him to death when he was a child. Though he tries to compartmentalize his childhood trauma – he tells his boyfriend, Luke (Devon Grae), that she is long dead – it comes rearing its ugly head after his mother reaches out to him via cryptic packages and audio recordings. It’s around this time that Will begins having hallucinations of a wolf-like creature which resembles a Halloween costume he wore as a child. Comparisons to Donnie Darko (2001) are hard to avoid (there’s even a shot of them watching television together, on a couch), and Heimann indeed wears his cinematic influences on his sleeve. Some of these references work (there’s a pretty warped variation of the infamous pottery scene from 1990’s Ghost), but others just feel derivative (a bad mushroom trip Will has in the forest is taken right out of 2019’s Midsommar). Hypochondriac may have been better off as a psychological drama, since Heimann seems boxed in – rather than invigorated by – his horror influences. After a few blood-smeared hallucinations, one gets the sneaking suspicion that the narrative is just spinning its wheels.
If the surrealistic touches of Hatching and Hypochondriac don’t quite congeal into a cohesive whole, those of Anita Rocha da Silveira’s debut, Medusa (Brazil), do. The story itself is fairly simple: A group of Christian fundamentalist women spend their nights donning white masks and taking to the streets to attack and brutalize those they consider “sluts” and “sinners.” But after sustaining a disfiguring injury to her face, Mariana (Mari Oliveira) begins to question her congregation’s sexism, homophobia, and dated gender norms (the church’s all-women choir, “Michelle and the Treasures of the Lord,” sings about the God-approved pleasures of being “a modest and pretty housewife”).
João Atala’s cinematography (Medusa is certainly among the most visually striking of the festival’s offerings) cleverly frames Mariana’s church as a tacky nightclub awash with multi-colored neon lights, the implication being that religious megachurches are often far more superficial and materialistic than the various marginalized groups they put in their crosshairs (one of the congregation’s most loyal attendees is an ever-smiling plastic surgeon). The filmbegins as something of a dark comedy (one of the women runs a blog with videos like “Ten ways to take a selfie for the glory of God”) but segues seamlessly into darker territory, climaxing with a literal primal scream for change.It’s all very unsubtle, but Silveira’s hypnotic visuals announce the arrival of a unique voice in genre film. Medusa is not all flash, either; the story is a prescient reminder of what might happen if, to paraphrase a character, “the only law is divine law.”
Self-made laws form the basis of Avalon Fast’s Honeycomb (Canada), about a group of young women whose utopian commune gradually descends into chaos. After stumbling across an abandoned cabin in the woods, Willow (Sophie Bawks-Smith) convinces her friends to join her in making it their new matriarchal home. “This boundless isolation and courageous freedom…this is just what we want,” she says, in one of many quasi-mystical ramblings. The rules by which the group operates (boys are only allowed if brought to the secret spot blindfolded; each woman must participate in ritualistic activities, including the suspiciously titled “suitable revenge”) become increasingly bizarre and violent. Fast and cowriter Emmett Roiko seem to have something to say about the societal expectation that women are built to serve (hence, the titular reference to worker bees), but Honeycomb’s best moments are purely visual; Fast composes some striking images – especially considering the crew’s limited budget and resources – such as a slightly-out-of-focus Willow floating in a lake, the water sparkling from the sun. The film’s amateurishness often works to its benefit (in this respect, I was reminded at times of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers, 2009); at its best, it has the look and feel of a relic left behind by a long-forgotten cult.
Standing out among these more fantastical outings is one of the best true-crime docudramas in some time. Director Justin Kurzel continues to probe the dark corners of his native country (following 2019’s True History of the Kelly Gang) with Nitram (Australia), a harrowing account of mass murderer Martin Bryant (Caleb Landry Jones), who killed 35 people in the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre. Jones – buttressed by an excellent Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia, who play Bryant’s parents – is instantly believable as the disturbed young man, whose childish antics (we first see him dancing around his backyard, playing with fireworks) careen indiscriminately into cruelty and violence (his idea of “helping” his depressed father is to pummel him into submission like a schoolyard bully). After he meets, woos, and promptly moves in with an unstable (and quite wealthy) recluse named Helen (The Babadook’s Essie Davis, fantastic in a short but crucial role), Bryant’s worst tendencies are given free rein.
As with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), Nitram’s stylistic flourishes (slow motion, distorted audio effects, grainy camcorder footage) avoid gratuity because they provide painful immersionrather than cheap catharsis. Also like Van Sant, Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant refuse to explain why Bryant did what he did (his connection to Port Arthur – at least in the film – is tenuous at best). “Sometimes I watch myself, but I don’t know who it is that I’m looking at,” he tells his mother. “If I could just change him so that he was like everyone else, but I don’t know how.” If someone like Bryant can’t even understand himself, how can any of us claim to? Perhaps all we can do is regret that he didn’t get the help he so clearly needed and – more importantly – mourn the many lives he destroyed. Nitram may very well be Kurzel’s strongest work yet; it sustains an almost unbearable tension throughout (every scene trembles with Bryant’s barely suppressed rage), right up until the haunting final shot.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.